If someone asked you to name a moderately priced, fun-to-drive, compact, rear-wheel-drive sport sedan, the BMW 328i would likely be the first vehicle that pops to mind. After that, other four-door models like the Cadillac ATS, Lexus IS250 and even the Audi A4 (if you are willing to accept its rear-bias all-wheel-drive system) would follow suit. The Mercedes-Benz C250 would eventually make the list, but that luxury-oriented sedan would likely be near the bottom.
But what if an entry-level C-Class could be configured to run with a sporty 3 Series, and not just at the AMG level?
To answer that question, we spent a full week with a 2013 C250 Sport that was fitted with a few choice options that bumped its athletic demeanor several notches, yet still kept its sticker price from hitting the stratosphere.
Mercedes-Benz launched the all-new third-generation C-Class (internal code W204) at the 2007 Geneva Motor Show for the 2008 model year. The four-door received a mid-cycle refresh in 2011 (shown at the 2011 Detroit Auto Show) that introduced a revised seven-speed gearbox and a refreshed, more upscale interior to better align it with its more expensive siblings. But that wasn't all, as Mercedes also treated its smallest sedan to a slew of exterior cosmetic enhancements, new driving assistance systems and next-generation telematics. The upgrades were comprehensive and very stylish, likely explaining why the Mars Red sedan in our driveway turned heads everywhere it went.
Our particular test car was a 2013 C250 Sedan with a base price of $36,255 (including a $905 destination fee). Its most expensive option was the Dynamic Sport package ($3,050), which added the unique seven split-spoke 18-inch wheels, AMG rear spoiler, sport seats in MB-Tex/Dinamica, red seat belts, red contrasting stitching, sport steering wheel, Advanced Agility Suspension and speed sensitive steering. The Premium 1 package ($2,500) added Sirius/XM Satellite Radio, 10-way power driver's seat, power lumbar, power steering column, split-folding rear seats, Harmon-Kardon surround sound audio package and other enhancements. The remaining two options were the rear decklid spoiler ($300) and a special order fee ($250). Added all up, this car's grand total was $42,355.
Added all up, this car's grand total was $42,355.
But our test car was missing a few desirable options. Had we added navigation ($2,790) and xenon headlights ($1,290), our price would have jumped to $46,435 – that's a big jump over its base price.
While a swelling sticker price may push it near the top of the segment, its physical dimensions keep it at the bottom. The C-Class sedan has a 108.7 inch wheelbase, the shortest in its competitive grouping, and its overall length trails all of the others by an inch or two. While those tiny numbers won't really affect the ride and handling, they do translate to a slightly smaller passenger cabin, especially for those in the back seat.
Yet during our week, not a single occupant complained about a lack of room. Even though some were rubbing their knees on the seatbacks, the passenger cabin of the baby Benz diverted everyone's attention with its sporty, yet tasteful, appointments. Everyone liked the bold red seatbelts and contrasting upholstery with subtle red stitching. There was just the right amount of bright aluminum trim splashed through the cabin to offset the heaviness of the black carpets, dash and headliner too. We especially liked the heavy-duty fabric floor mats with red piping, which proved very easy to clean.
During our week, not a single occupant complained about a lack of room.
With regards to the rest of the cabin, the door-mounted seat controls are handy and the large lock/unlock switches next to the door handles logically placed. The primary instruments, with light backgrounds, were easy to read and the steering wheel felt great in our hands. The climate controls were easy to use and the "max cool" and "off" buttons conveniently reduced the number of buttons we had to push. Praises aside, we still don't like the COMAND infotainment interface and its counterintuitive logic. And why is there a NAV button on the center stack when there is no navigation system? (A reader pointed out that NAV may be added afterwards via the Becker Map Pilot plug-and-play system that hides in the glovebox - Ed.)
With the exception of Lexus, which still holds out with a V6 in its entry-level sedan, most in the segment are running inline four-cylinder engines with forced induction. As such, the C250 is fitted with a turbocharged 1.8-liter four-cylinder. The thoroughly modern aluminum engine is rated at 201 horsepower and 229 pound-feet of torque, making it slightly less powerful than the standard 2.5-liter six in the Lexus and the turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder offered by BMW, Audi and Cadillac in the States. Bolted to the back of the longitudinally mounted engine is a seven-speed automatic transmission (7G-Tronic Plus) sending power to the rear wheels.
This is a good point to mention the "sport" button, found just above the driver's temperature control about mid-way up the center console. When activated (a red light on the silver face illuminates), the electronically controlled adaptive dampers firm up, the steering becomes heavier and the throttle response is quicker. Most importantly, the C250 launches from a stop in first gear instead of second. That little button is worth its weight in unobtainium, as it completely transforms the character of the sedan.
Sport activated, a full throttle launch will deliver 60 miles per hour in about 6.5 seconds.
Sport activated, a full throttle launch will deliver 60 miles per hour in about 6.5 seconds, proving that the turbocharged four-banger works every bit as hard as its burlier rivals – it felt positively underrated from behind the wheel. Shifts from the automatic transmission were firm, maybe too firm for some, but those yearning for sport over luxury won't mind one bit. We liked the seven-cog gearbox, but found the steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters a bit gimmicky as there isn't enough engine compression to use them for braking. Plus, their response to inputs was a bit lethargic.
Those who associate Mercedes-Benz with a cushy ride may be slightly disappointed. The C250 Sport with the Agility Control upgrade has continuously variable electro-hydraulic dampers that deliver a ride on the firm side of the comfort meter. We liked it, as its competent body control complemented excellent grip from the Continental ContiSport tires (turning the Sport button off makes the ride slightly softer, but never mushy). We met zero resistance when tossing the sedan into a corner, and the Gs quickly built when we dialed in more steering to close each turn. The chassis was impressively rigid, and we didn't hear a squeak from the interior all week. Our only letdown came from the steering effort. It was dead accurate and nicely weighed, but we like more feedback in a vehicle with such a sporty driving demeanor.
The chassis was impressively rigid, and we didn't hear a squeak from the interior all week.
When it comes to braking, Mercedes has fitted the C250 with sporty drilled rotors at all four corners. They look cool, but the little holes actually reduce the pad's friction surface area and make the rotors more expensive to replace. Nevertheless, the pedal feel from the driver's seat was excellent, braking distances were short and they never let us down. Drilled rotors sometimes make excessive noise, but we found these pleasantly quiet.
It is important to mention fuel economy, thus explaining why today's entry-level Mercedes is fitted with a four-cylinder engine and not the V6 of its predecessor. The EPA rates the 1.8-liter at 22 mpg city and 31 mpg highway, and 25 mpg combined, on premium gasoline. To see how far we have come in just six years, consider that the 2007 C230, with a 2.5-liter V6, was rated at a much lower 17 mpg city and 23 mpg highway. We didn't have any problem hitting the highway numbers during steady-state cruising, but our heavy foot dropped our city driving cycles into the teens. We suggest deactivating the Sport button and wearing lighter shoes to hit the EPA's numbers. A generous 17.4-gallon fuel tank, the largest among its competitive set, gives the Mercedes a strong cruising range on the highway and reduces the frequency of trips to the gas station.
We looked forward to turning its key every morning.
As you can probably tell, we really liked the Mercedes-Benz C250 Sedan. Even though it receives a few demerits for interior space and some questionable ergonomics, this compact sedan is fuel efficient, sporty and very fun-to-drive – we looked forward to turning its key every morning. While we can't state that it is definitively better overall than the benchmark BMW 328i without a head-to-head comparison, we will say that the Mercedes-Benz C250 Sport has earned a spot on our vaulted sport sedan podium.